Why The Walking Dead’s Ending Works

Spoilers For The Comic and TV Show.

After playing through Telltale’s Walking Dead Season One in 2012, I thought it was about time I finally checked out the TV series. For eight seasons and five episodes of the ninth, I followed the show, but the departure of not only Carl or Rick, but both characters caused me to finally quit, convinced that The Walking Dead was destined to shamble on, rehashing plotlines and burning through characters until the cash flow dissipated, and only then, finally, would it end. That being said, I did still have interest in the comic book. I dabbled, reading a bit online, but it was when the comic series finally did something, something I didn’t know the Walking Dead was capable of doing that I finally decided it was about time I read the entire thing: It ended. And it ended out of nowhere. So, as I said, I read. And in doing so, I realized something. Something seemingly obvious, but so significant to me at that time, that I felt compelled to write about. The Walking Dead is about something.

The ending of the Walking Dead comic is brilliant for multiple reasons, one of which being that it comes out of absolutely nowhere, not having been teased at all by Kirkman, simply ending at the innocuous number of #193, seven issues away from the big 200. But it’s not only this metatextual reason, why The Walking Dead’s ending is brilliant. I think in all the novelty of the way it ended, I don’t hear as much praise for the content of the ending itself (though I’ll admit, I’m no longer in many Walking Dead related circles), but the final arc adds so much meaning to the entire journey up to that point. Allow me to explain.

The final arc of the Walking Dead takes place after yet another Big Battle with a major human antagonist. We’ve gone through a few of these at this point, and this most recently battle came with its prerequisite Shocking Death. The Whisperer Arc was interesting, but it was by no means untrodden ground in the cycle of The Walking Dead. The series had, at that point, undergone some major status quo changes, but it seemed at that point that even as much as the series had changed, there were only so many plot beats that it could hit, just with some moderate variations on its execution each time.

The introduction of the Commonwealth then, seemed like a familiar plot point as well. The appearance of another big group. Are they friend or foe? This’ll be tense for a volume or two. The Commonwealth quickly sets themselves apart from any other implementation of this plot point, however, just with their pure size. It reveals itself to be a community of 50,000 members. Bigger than every group shown so far combined, and multiplied several times. 

Moreover, they seem friendly enough. However the Commonwealth do quickly establish themselves to be the final obstacle to overcome in the series. The difference between them and every other group of this type, is that the conflict with them is purely ideological. The Commonwealth represents normalcy. Safety. The preservation of civilization as it was. For better and for worse.

Soon into the Commonwealth arc you see that there’s unrest brewing within its borders. Along with all the good things about civilization that are preserved in the Commonwealth, there’s also some of the bad. Like income disparity! And class divides! Those fun, fun things. When Rick’s group sees this, it takes them aback. And it’s then that the entire series becomes recontextualized.

The Walking Dead, prior to the Alexandria arc, was a series about a rotating group of people trying to survive in the apocalypse. They bounced from place to place, sunk to new levels of barbarity, and grappled with their mental health and sanity. Alexandria and the surrounding communities represented an opportunity to reforge some semblance of civilization. The series then at that point seems to have been, overall about a journey to rebuild a civilization. After the All-Out War arc, the series spends a long time just living in the new world the group built after the conflict. It’s portrayed as almost idyllic. There are some problems, of course. Big ones, even. But manageable ones.

The Commonwealth, and all its problems, re-contextualize the series again. Rick wasn’t just rebuilding civilization. He was, in a way, building a better one. One that didn’t have as many of the societal problems as the one we had before. The Commonwealth, therefore, represents the final test of Rick’s civilization. Will Rick’s civilization persevere against the old ways?

The way this conflict is fought is demonstrably different than any of the previous, as well. As I said before, the conflict is purely ideological. Rick at this point in the series has grappled with being the leader throughout most of its duration. He’s lost more people than he can count. He lost his wife and daughter, then found a new, even more happy relationship with Andrea before losing her too. He’s disillusioned with fighting.

Though this is an article about the Walking Dead comic, I feel compelled to mention Rick’s character in the TV Show, if only to contrast it with his portrayal here. Rick, in the TV series, is played well by Andrew Lincoln, a good actor. His character in the show has some solidly powerful moments, but is perhaps one of its most inconsistent characters, bouncing from foamy-mouthed insanity to Ghandi-like speeches of the benefits of non-violence from season to season. It ultimately serves to muddle his arc.

In the comics, on the other hand, Rick undergoes a pretty stable arc, losing more and more of his humanity and sanity as the series goes on, until he finally finds some stability in Alexandria. His realization of its potential drives him to rein in his darker impulses and focus not just on the immediate survival of his group and the decimation of potential threats, but on the future. It’s what causes him to spare Negan, and attempt to reconstruct a justice system. And it’s what ultimately causes him to eliminate Dwight when he nearly causes a full-on war with the Commonwealth. Even though the following panels are quite cheesy and on-the-nose, they illustrate what I’m talking about.

Rick goes from here in issue 24

To here in issue 191

A clear full arc.

In said issue, a war with the Commonwealth threatens to break out in spite of Rick’s wishes, but he manages to stop the fighting long enough to speechify to the Commonwealth and say the title of the series, convincing them not to fight with Rick, but instead to fight against the system that is oppressing them. Is it a perfect moment? No. But it does it’s job, and wraps up Rick’s arc very nicely. Of course, even though we concluded without a Big Fight, we are not spared a Shocking Death. Having undergone a full arc, Rick is killed at the end of the issue. Not by a fearsome villain, or a horde of zombies, but by an entitled kid who was resentful that Rick changed things.

But the final issue shows that even after a huge timeskip of multiple decades, Rick’s vision of the future has come to pass, more or less. The Commonwealth and the Alexandria Safe-Zone are chugging along just fine, with a train system connecting them. New holdouts of civilization are still being found. And Carl, the person who Rick suffered through so much to protect, is living peacefully with a wife and child in this new world

The Walking Dead, throughout most of its run, seems to be about the degradation of humanity, the de-evolution of human society as civilization falls. But in its final moments, it proves to be the opposite. How, after an apocalyptic event, humanity came back, better than it was before.

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